Manoeuvres in the military

The Politics of the British Army

June 19, 1998

To the mainstream historian, over its long history the British Army appears to have been notably apolitical and little threat to the state, compared with many armies. The military apologist, steeped as he is nowadays in Clausewitzian doctrine of military means and political ends, sees the British Army as largely absorbed in military practicalities and the intricacies of the "regimental system". The organisational theorist, versed in Michael Oakeshott's either/or dichotomy of "action organisation"/"political organisation", would place the British Army firmly in the former category. Hew Strachan's The Politics of the British Army treats these views as received wisdom ready to be challenged at every stage in the army's gradual path to professionalisation.

Unequivocal from the start, Strachan states that "it is almost tautologous to refer to the politics of an army. Armies are self-evidently political institutions." Yet even the most noted modern scholars and historians of the British Army, he suggests, have given scant regard to its politics - by which he means politics in a number of contexts and at a number of levels - despite the evidence readily at hand. Likewise the military sociologists, dwelling on the phenomenology of large-scale militarism, models of civil-military relations and social-class origins, have not noticed the subtleties of the British army's development. With convincing re-interpretation of published evidence, Strachan concludes that "the more successful and career-minded officers came from service backgrounds", the army breeding its own officers so to speak, with only endogenous professional agendas hardly threatening to the state. As a distinct part of British society, "the social composition of the army is largely irrelevant to its growth as a professional body", he concludes. Class consciousness, even in Blair's Britain, frequently thrives more on appearance than substance.

Covering the well-known political settlements of 1688-89, which divided the constitutional powers over the military between parliament and crown, Strachan continues with the post-Waterloo Wellington years and struggles for the continuation of the royal connection drawn out by the persistence of Victoria and the Duke of Cambridge. The Asquith, Lloyd George, Henry Wilson, Haig and Robertson relationships are similarly rehearsed, but the action by Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice writing to the press which caused a political crisis and vote of censure against the Lloyd George government on May 9 1918, is found to be based "on high principle, not political intrigue". Some readers will dispute this conclusion.

Strachan dwells too on colonial and imperial politics of the army, and it is here that politics at the lower levels as well as the higher levels of command, become a matter of military professionalism. "The empire", he states, was "the most consistent and most continuous influence in shaping the army as an institution. It was the principal agent in the army's acquisition of professionalism." There soldiers were relatively free to use military means without too much attention to political ends, although field commanders learned gradually to link them, based on the powerful memory of the Indian Mutiny. Policing the empire continued to exercise the political sense of the army through two thirds of this century, and policing Ireland to this day. Strachan's wide interpretation of the term "politics" is thus fully justified and the army continued to learn from such incidents as Bloody Sunday in 1972 and internment. Northern Ireland as well as the British Army of the Rhine has manifestly shaped the modern army.

Strachan's book should attract a wide readership of academic historians, political commentators and the relatively new phenomenon, in scale that is, of uniformed intelligentsia. A chapter on the "politics of grand strategy" in the global and alliance setting beginning with the second world war, is a masterly and succinct exposition of the political and military tensions of the time: politicians and military leaders alike, each considering that war was too important a matter to be left to the other to make the most important decisions. Strachan believes Churchill ensured "he occupied the pole position between the (three) servicesI the army was therefore deprived of political clout"I but as chairman of the chiefs of staffs, General Sir Alan Brooke's "public silence during the war was a vital element in ensuringI integration" of politics and military judgement.

That, however, is not the end of the story. Strachan reveals with much new information and insight the postwar "politics of inter-service rivalry". The Ministry of Defence, formed in 1964, grew out of the experience of war. Strachan charts the lobbying by service officers such as Mountbatten, Templer, Hull, and Lewin and more recently de la Billi re and Rose. All perceived such activity as part of their professional role. Two politicians, Strachan believes, stand out as defence secretaries who roundly defeated senior soldiers at the political game: Denis Healey and Michael Heseltine.

The "politics of the regiment" is a welcome chapter on a subject of abiding peacetime interest to soldiers, which in the latter part of the 20th century can hardly be proved to be the force-multiplier and decisive factor in fighting effectiveness that it once was. The extent of regimental blood-letting, particularly in 1958, 1968-70 and 1992-94 was, however, a matter of internal army politics and professional pride. Yet Strachan reinforces other writers' views that "the regimental system has prevented the army speaking with a collective voice" - in one context a weakness and another a strength. A chapter yet to be written is, however, about the political views and activities of junior officers and soldiers, a new phenomenon in the late 1990s, soon to be tested in the freedom of information legislation debate.

Strachan's contribution to scholarship on the army is to confirm the existence and efficacy of servicemen having political views and acting on them. He concludes first that "claims to be apolitical from an institution whose function is extremely political are themselves political statements". Second, he states that the dominant tradition is that "the army's politics follow its professional priorities". He is right.

Patrick Mileham is lecturer, University of Paisley and Centre of Leadership Studies, University of Surrey.

The Politics of the British Army

Author - Hew Strachan
ISBN - 0 19 820670 4
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £30.00
Pages - 324

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